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Jeff Kolpack, Published April 23 2014

Thorton hopes to make impact in Bison's linebacking depth

FARGO – Esley Thorton began his North Dakota State football career as a dual-threat quarterback who could run and throw. He’ll end his career next season as a dual-threat linebacker.

The senior-to-be from Bismarck is playing the second, and more difficult, outside linebacker position this spring in a move aimed at improving NDSU’s overall depth. For the first time in a few years, the Bison may not need the three starters to play almost every snap during the season.

“We finally have some options,” said head coach Chris Klieman.

Option No. 1 in the season opener next fall is expected to be the same look that started the FCS national title game: Carlton Littlejohn in the middle and Thorton and Travis Beck at the outside spots. Littlejohn (knee) and Beck (shoulder) are sidelined this spring, so it’s given the Bison coaches even more of an opportunity to evaluate their younger linebackers.

“Defensively we’ve developed depth,” Thorton said. “We’re more confident in those guys than we were in the fall.”

“Those guys” starts with sophomore Nick DeLuca, who played on special teams primarily as a true freshman. Klieman said his progress has been impressive enough this spring to where he could spell Littlejohn for a series or two.

Outside linebacker M.J. Stumpf will be in his third year in the program next fall and sophomore Pierre Gee-Tucker, who played last year as a true freshman, has been hobbled with injuries this spring. But Klieman has seen enough to where he thinks Tucker can help.

Redshirt freshman Matt Plank, a highly touted recruit a year ago, is also trying to get into the mix as are fellow redshirt Mike Goergen and converted sophomore safety Bo Liekhus.

Nobody has learned the position as fast as Thorton. Now around 225 pounds, he’s no longer thought of as that former quarterback.

“I remember coach (Craig) Bohl saying my size was good enough to get by, but it wasn’t ideal,” said Thorton, who was around 205 pounds as a quarterback. “I think I’m now closer to the ideal weight.”

Thorton started the final six games after senior middle linebacker Grant Olson injured his knee. It caused Littlejohn to move from the outside to Olson’s position, and Littlejohn said Wednesday he expects to stay there.

“As far as I’ve heard,” he said. “But with the talent on this team, I could be anywhere.”

Littlejohn had microfracture surgery and is expected to begin running next month. Meanwhile, he and Beck are doing everything else in spring ball except playing.

“I’m trying to help the younger guys improve their skillset right now,” Littlejohn said. “Watching them make the same mistakes I made when I was younger.”

Thorton’s ability to play the two outside spots gives Beck a proven backup for the first time in his career. It’s possible Littlejohn could play his old outside linebacker spot against certain offenses like a spread.

Littlejohn and Beck will be fourth-year starters when the Bison open their season at Iowa State on Aug. 30. But the days may be over like the 2012 season when Beck played every down.

“We’ll have a true second group for the first time in three years,” Klieman said.

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia